The tagline for City Island is "Truth is stranger than family." Besides the fact that this faux-axiom doesn't hold up under any scrutiny, the family in City Island is stranger than truth. And the truth is that City Island, although a jewel of New York City, is not a jewel of a movie.
It is surprising that City Island, as a geographic anomaly, hasn't starred in a movie before. A New England fishing village off the coast of the Bronx, it seems picture perfect for the cinema, a Mystic Pizza off the Pelham Parkway. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta had the long overdue idea for a great setting. Unfortunately, good characterization didn't follow. This movie, seemingly a labor of love, sadly goes too far off island.
There is here, somewhere in this mess of a movie, a funny, lovely comedy about a lovely, fun place that breeds a special kind of person. Beginning narration tells us that special kind of person is a clam digger— a person that is born on City Island. Clam diggers, we are told, are different than the mussel suckers — people who come later to the island. People who aren't born on the island. In other words, everyone else. On Cape Cod, these people are referred to as wash-ashores. You get the idea.
Back to City Island. In case we weren't listening before, protagonist Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) tells us again about the clam diggers — making sure we know that he is a clam digger. What does that really mean? We never find out. It's an intriguing idea, but the movie never takes off with this thrown gauntlet of "us" and "the other."
We do find out, however, that Vince, a corrections officer… wait a minute, strike that, reverse: he's a prison guard with secret aspirations to be an actor. Vince is ashamed of these ambitions, embarrassed to tell anyone that he takes acting classes in Manhattan. Instead, he tells his family that he is playing poker with the boys. His wife thinks he is having an affair. Hilarity ensues.
We'll forgive the nonsensical storyline that the Bronx has a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude about acting — the borough with DeNiro, Pacino, Sinatra, Scorsese on every restaurant wall. More about Scorsese later. We'll forgive this inconsistency because it gives us Alan Arkin as Vince's acting coach, and Mr. Arkin rescues every scene as he usually does.
Vince is not the only one with a secret. Secrets. He has more than one. His wife, his daughter, and his son all have secrets — symbolized by stolen smokes out on a sloping lawn that bends down to the harbor dominated by a to-die-for view of Manhattan. But I digress about the beauties of City Island. I should be talking about City Island.
The actors try valiantly to flesh out these characters. The family Soprano-Lite are well cast. The daughter Vivian is played by Dominik García-Lorido, Andy Garcia's real-life daughter. There is an authentic family resemblance, but it makes the scene where Vince admires his stripper (okay, she's not a stripper, she's merely a pole-dancer) daughter's brand new breasts even more creepy.
The son, Vince Jr., who has a few creepy tendencies of his own, is played by Ezra Miller and has a strong resemblance to his on-screen beautiful shrew of a matriarch, Julianna Margulies, who has nothing to do here but shriek and smoke. Each actor seems capable of doing so much more with their character, but the script hinders them. Emily Mortimer especially is wasted in a highly farcical role; her whole reason for being in the picture is to set up some highly unlikely and unlikeable situations — one being Vince's casting in a Scorsese movie upon his first audition. That alone should make struggling actors over the world picket this movie.
A rediscovered son, Steven Strait as Tony Nardella, is in disbelief at his new family where bellowing equals love equals humor. We are in disbelief too. Mr. Strait is a nice bookend for Alan Arkin's deadpan style. Although the two actors never share a scene together, they do form a stanchion to a lot of craziness.
City Island is a very busy movie and when something chaotic isn't happening on screen, then some shouting will do. Padding the story line with lots of farce and awkward coincidences doesn't strengthen the storyline enough to let it be what it wants to be – a funny midlife crisis comedy.
Not everyone would agree with this negativity. City Island won the audience award in last year's Tribeca Film Festival. The same night I attended an advance screening of City Island, Andy Garcia was downtown at the Tribeca 92Y, giving a talk about his new movie. The film was billed as the story of "a corrections officer that leads a double life as an aspiring actor." If only City Island was simply that.
City Island opens Friday March 19.